Religious Leaders as Human Rights Defenders?

In the early hours of 1 July 2015, Pastor Hafiz Mengisto, senior minister of the Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church in Sudan, was arrested after trying to prevent police officers from demolishing a building on church property, which they did not have authorisation to do. While in police custody, he sustained injuries to his head and ear that required medical attention upon his release. Pastor Mengisto was only acquitted of ‘obstructing a public servant from performing the duties of his office’ on 29 December 2015.

While his acquittal is welcome, his case is not an isolated incidence of harassment but is indicative of a continued and wide crackdown on human rights defenders (HRDs) – including religious leaders or members of faith communities making a stand for human rights within their community. HRDs face various challenges ranging from de jure discrimination and bureaucratic hassles to harassment, violence, torture and murder.

Is the international community waking up to reprisals against HRDs?

In his report to the UN General Assembly in 2015, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst drew attention to the “disturbing increase in the number of reprisals and acts of intimidation reported by defenders.” Today, thousands of human rights activists across the world face severe intimidation and harassment. One of the most difficult countries for human rights defenders is China where at least half of the country’s most prominent human rights lawyers – many of them Christians – have been interrogated, detained and in some cases disappeared since 9 July 2015. At least 30 of the over 300 HRD’s interrogated during this period, as well as others connected to them, have vanished into China’s detention system.

Since the adoption of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (1998), the international community has increasingly recognised the role of HRDs in promoting human rights. The work of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders has been instrumental in this. Moreover, the adoption of UN resolutions on human rights defenders has ensured that their situation remains visible in international human rights platforms.

In November 2015, the UN General Assembly passed an important resolution calling for states to adopt strong and effective measures to protect human rights defenders. The resolution was passed with 117 countries voting for it and 14 countries – including several Human Rights Council members such as Pakistan, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia – voting against. A further 40 countries abstained from the vote. It’s clear that many countries, including several members of the Human Rights Council, still remain uncomfortable with the work of HRDs.

Religious leaders as human rights defenders?

CSW works closely with various religious leaders – priests, imams, monks, nuns and other key members of faith-based organisations (FBOs) – who engage actively in the promotion of human rights. While the human rights work of religious leaders is by no means more important than the work of any HRDs, FBOs and religious leaders are often in a unique position to provide important services to their communities and may have greater access to and influence within a community than the governing authorities which makes them valuable agents of human rights.

There is no doubt that religious convictions and ideologies are sometimes responsible for human rights violations. However it remains important to understand the positive role and opportunities that religion or belief plays in promotion of human rights. CSW recommends that the international community pays consistent attention to religious leaders and human rights defenders from faith communities and ensures that they are able to engage constructively with human rights platforms. Furthermore, increasing religious leaders’ awareness of, and capacity for promoting human rights, remains crucial.

All human rights defenders – be they religious leaders, secular activists, lawyers, journalists or students – make a vital contribution to the promotion human rights and their rights must be protected more effectively. The implementation of the key UN resolutions as well as the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders remain key ways to further protect HRDs and to ensure that these invaluable and heavily-lobbied documents do not remain paper tigers without teeth.

For further information: CSW’s report on Religious Leaders as Human Rights Defenders, December 2015.

By Sini-Maria Heikkila, CSW’s Public Affairs Team Leader